Yearlong project a catalyst for rethinking revolution

Seminar examines entangled histories of American, French and Haitian revolutions

Revolutions have long been seen as pivot points in history. But scholars often examine these transformative moments from within the silos of their own geographic or methodological specializations.  

That’s why two members of the Brandeis faculty, Jane Kamensky, the Harry S. Truman Professor of American Civilization and Chair of the Department of History, and Susan S. Lanser, professor of comparative literature, English, and women's and gender studies and head of the Division of Humanities, proposed a yearlong interdisciplinary seminar, “Rethinking the Age of Revolution: Rights, Representation and the Global Imaginary.” Their idea was to frame big scholarly questions in the context of the entangled histories and ramifications of the American, French and Haitian revolutions.  

Thanks to a $175,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the seminar is under way with a cadre of Brandeis faculty members, PhD students and scholars from several other New England institutions. Over the course of the academic year, the seminar will draw on experts from the fields of history, literature, art, philosophy and political science to provide new perspectives on big questions about revolution and its influence on societies, cultures, literature and the arts, everyday life, human rights, and economic relations. On Friday, Sept. 27, three eminent scholars from across the country will kick off the project with an inaugural symposium.

“The Axes of Revolution: Space, Time, Idea,” is the first of four public events planned this year. It will be held in the Mandel Center for the Humanities, Room G03 (auditorium), from 2 to 4:30 p.m. Featured speakers include Doris Garraway, an expert in Haitian literature from Northwestern University, Eliga H. Gould, a historian of the American Revolution in transnational perspective who chairs the department of history at the University of New Hampshire, and Lynn Hunt, a renowned historian of the French Revolution from UCLA.

This marks the first time that Brandeis has received funding from the Mellon Foundation to organize a John E. Sawyer Seminar on the Comparative Study of Culture. The competition for this prestigious award, which was established in 1994, is open only by invitation to select universities and colleges. Only nine such seminars were funded nationwide for the 2013-14 academic year. The grant also provides two dissertation fellowships for Brandeis graduate students and funds a postdoctoral fellow, Julia Gaffield, a diplomatic historian of Haiti in the Atlantic context, who will join Georgia State University next year as an assistant professor of history and who has created a blog to extend the conversation taking place in the seminar.

“Mellon’s generosity has enabled us to invite to Brandeis a host of eminent scholars,” says Kamensky. “It is a testament to the strength of the idea behind the seminar — relating the lessons of these three revolutions to today’s global challenges — that the project has already generated national attention.”

Although they work in different academic disciplines, Lanser and Kamensky have collaborated on a number of scholarly projects. In addition to the Revolutions seminar, they have created an award-winning interdisciplinary course on the city of London.

“The intellectual rigor that comes with our collaboration is deeply rewarding,” says Lanser. “This project is both the culmination of one phase of our work and a starting point for new research. We’re excited to learn from the participants and to share the seminar outcomes with the scholarly community.”

It’s not often that scholars are able to look at all three revolutions together, and Haiti, in particular, is often marginalized in discussions, says Faith Smith, an associate professor of African and Afro-American Studies, English, and women’s and gender studies at Brandeis. “It’s great that Sue and Jane were able to bring this seminar here and that Brandeis is leading the way in this discussion.”

“I think this kind of interdisciplinary study is typical for conferences that last one or two days, which is really great, but you meet people and then you go home,” Gaffield says. “This seminar will let us see how the discussion progresses across the year.”

Gaffield says the study of comparative revolutions is a relatively new field, one that provides a great opportunity to connect historical research with current events.

“Revolutionary change is very attractive to people in my students’ generation who might not immediately see the connections between what we’re doing and the present,” Smith adds. “Students are taken with the idea of social movements, the idea of radical change, and this seminar promises to give us a fresh perspective.”

For more information on the seminar leaders, members and guests as well as upcoming public events, visit the seminar website.

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, International Affairs

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